It’s that time again, the year has come to an end and it’s time to reflect back on the best films of 2019. I loved a vast range of films that differed in style and concept, whilst it wasn’t as good as 2017 or 2018, there were certainly some absolute masterworks scattered around. I was able to see 112 films in the year (an exapnsion from the 85 I caught in 2018), ranging from psychological horrors, musicals to gangsta films. If I’m being honest my top 20 picks are all films I consider to be fantastic, it’s hard not including some of them specifically, so here are a few mentions; From James Gray’s tremendous Ad Astra to Alice Rohrwacher’s perfectly gentle and beguiling Happy as Lazzaro, Pedro Almodovar’s sublime Pain and Glory, Mike Flanagan’s nerve-shattering Doctor Sleep, Kevin Smith’s hysterical Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, Taika Waititi’s charmingly wondrous Jojo Rabbit, and Guy Ritchie’s splendid Aladdin. Simply, there are just too many films to fit into my top ten.
The year was especially good for second-time directors, including Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary, Midsommar (a beautifully twisted fairy tale), Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (a maritime masterpiece), Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (flawless, a cinematic hug of endless warmth) and Jordan Peele’s Us (terrifically chilling and effective).
Like last year, fans and critics raved for superhero films, including Avengers: Endgame, Shazam! and Joker. Divisiveness has been also strong in some of these films, I loved Captain Marvel, as opposed to a large batch of agenda-driven fan backlash. Whilst Joker has its lovers, it also has people on the far end about it. Additionally, 2019 saw the return of some cinema masters. Tarantino, Scorsese and Almodóvar returned with grandiose, all delivering films that rank among their very best. Ending off the year we had the wonderful entry of Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s second feature. Starring the awards-worthy Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh. As with most year’s there are a few turkey’s that should be left unseen, Uncut Gems and Velvet Buzzsaw are those, they are unforgettable nightmares. Additionally, foreign films continue to mark among the best of the year, including; Never Look Away, Sunset, Pain and Glory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Parasite, Happy as Lazzaro and much more.
The Top 10 best films of 2019
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
There is something sincerely beguiling in the feeling you get watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, ultimately, it’s Tarantino’s fantastical fairy tale about 1960’s Hollywood. With my eighth viewing in the cinema (the most I’ve ever seen a film), I’m certain it’s a masterpiece and is one of Tarantino’s best. It’s a mystical feat of technicolor, nostalgia and a filmmaker’s exhilaration for a topic. What is captured is a feel that only Tarantino could capture. It encapsulates everything about why I love films. Beautifully shot, scripted with cleverness, acted with outstanding talent (on all fronts) and directed with the assured control of a master of cinema.
2. The Irishman
One of Scorsese’s finest films, ranking among his very best. Beautiful on all fronts. It’s a sweet mix of Goodfellas and Silence, The Irishman balances violence, melancholy and dishonesty in a perfectly harmonious way that’s so beautifully done – you may find yourself choking up a little. Additionally, Al Pacino delivers a career-defining performance, with De Niro and Pesci equally shining.
3. Never Look Away/Sunset
Poetic and beautiful, Never Look Away has the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen. It has an all-powerful quality that overwhelms beyond all images captured before. It’s a masterpiece of luminous beauty, capturing a fiction that is enhanced by reality. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s vision is one of wonder, beauty, sorrow and expression. It is an over-powering experience, this is cinema at its height of her powers.
Never Look Away was released in 2018 in the US, but 2019 here. Also, Sunset is a confusing one, I watched it in 2018 at the Zurich Film Festival, but it got its release in 2019… It was on my list last year, but considering the official release was this year, I’m bringing it back. Sunset sucks us into a confined perspective – using frequent long-takes, shot on 35mm film, backed by incredible set design – the result is a world so real you feel as if you could touch it. The film has a darkness and beauty behind each veil lifted, the ambiguous nature of the narrative reels you in as you begin to create a picture of what the greater metaphors and symbolism truly embody.
Joker is a brazenly breathtaking film with Joaquin Phoenix delivering an out-of-this-world performance as the clown prince of crime and Todd Phillips soars with his utterly beautiful direction. It will disturb, contort and make you laugh, it finds the perfect fine line between tragedy and comedy.
5. The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse is Robert Egger’s maritime masterpiece of mythic quality. Dafoe and Pattinson deliver preposterously fantastic performances, it is one of the greatest achievements in cinema this year and is an unstoppable force of dark and maddening confinement. I cannot stop thinking about the film, the impact remains.
6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
The beauty and elegance of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is indescribable, the sensation and contagiousness of its love story will no doubt go down in cinematic history. It oozes elegance and is nonchalant in its intimacy, Claire Mathon’s cinematography is gorgeously sublime. Visually and passionately you can’t help but to awe upon the masterful nature of Sciamma’s film backed by two sensually overloading performances.
7. Little Women
Little Women is a warm cinematic hug that you never want to let go. Excellence is fired on all cylinders. Greta Gerwig is an unstoppable filmmaking force. The experience is full of changing moods, tone and chemistry, the fluctuations in emotions felt prove Gerwig to be a filmmaker of full control. Additionally, the entire cast is pitch-perfect. If I were to single out my picks, it’d be; Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Timothée Chalamet, if I had too…
8. The Nightingale
An unforgiving grief stricken revenge tale of mythic properties. Jennifer Kent’s second feature is a unforgettable triumph, confined to Academy ratio, we are launched into a world of staggering horror and atrocities of devilish qualities. A historic gothic that defines Kent as a director at the height of her masterful powers, an ongoing sense of control is ever-present in the jaw-droppingly beautiful cinematography.
Midsommar is a fairytale about the impossible extent of grief, the struggles of codependency and a Wizard of Oz-like twist on Swedish-traditions. Proving once more that Ari Aster is a director of masterful strength, you can’t help but be in absolute awe of the beauty he’s captured and his psychologically nightmare-inducing vision that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
10. Marriage Story/Dragged Across Concrete
Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach’s latest film that is ripe full of melancholy, beauty and contrasting nastiness. Adam Driver gives a career-best performance as he commands every emotion to the finest degree. There is something so real and intimate with Baumbach’s portrayal of a divorce, it is both beautiful and brutal.
I would argue Dragged Across Concrete marks Zahler as a upcoming modern master of cinema, similar to perhaps a Damien Chazelle (in a very different way). An auteur with a vividly distinct vision that is portrayed through nuance and style. Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cellblock 99 are excellent, but this is one huge step up to absolute mastery and control. It’s slow and contained, Zahler’s achingly tension-filled vision shines through its steady precision.
It was a great year for film.
Written by Ben Rolph